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Science the Endless Frontier: The Continuing Relevance of Vannevar Bush

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The Green Center for Physics Dedication
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Friday, October 5, 2007


It is no secret that I have a great attachment to M.I.T. I received my bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees here; I spent the formative years of my young adulthood here; and, as a Life Member of the M.I.T. Corporation, I help to steward the university today. My reverence for this great institution is profound and strong.

Most of all, I revere the transformational ideas which regularly germinate within and around this great intellectual wellspring, and the living presence of these ideas in our lives, in our society, in our nation, and throughout our world.

May I say — as we celebrate the opening of the M.I.T. Green Center for Physics — that ideas cannot but better germinate — with the inspired design and building adaptation achieved here. Creating a core center for the study of physics — uniting condensed matter theory with particle and nuclear theory — strengthens the academic community and fosters a productive cross-fertilization of ideas. It, also, is considerably more convenient for students and faculty, and easier to administer, I am sure.

I am delighted to be at this dedication symposium for the Green Center for Physics because Cecil Green was an M.I.T. alumnus, life member of the Corporation, and benefactor. J. Erik Jonsson, RPI alumnus, trustee and benefactor, was a co-founder, with Cecil Green, of Texas Instruments, and was mayor of Dallas in the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Having received my doctorate in theoretical elementary particle physics here, my own career has led me to positions in government, industrial research, and academia. In each sector I have found vision and overall guidance in the work of a distinguished M.I.T alumnus and professor: Dr. Vannevar Bush. As you know, his seminal work, Science — the Endless Frontier, has shaped U.S. science policy for more than six decades. If we continue to adhere to its basic principles, we will see a continuation and a revitalization of the unprecedented era of discovery and innovation which has so benefited our quality of life, and our national security; and can enhance global security.

A 1913 graduate of Tufts University, Vannevar Bush entered graduate school at M.I.T., receiving his doctorate in electrical engineering, jointly from M.I.T. and from Harvard University, in 1917.

During the last year of World War I, Dr. Bush worked at the National Research Council — improving techniques for detecting submarines. Here, he observed a lack of coordination between civilian scientists and the military, and he began to formulate his ideas about the inter-relationships among scientists in the government, academic, and industry sectors.

Later, he returned here to M.I.T., joining the Department of Electrical Engineering as a professor from 1923 to 1932, becoming vice-president and dean of engineering from 1932 through 1938.

While at M.I.T., he built a mechanical analog computer designed to solve differential equations with as many as 18 variables using wheel-and-disc mechanisms to perform the integration. One of his graduate students, Claude Shannon, developed digital circuit design theory, and another, Frederick Terman, was instrumental in the genesis of “Silicon Valley.”

In 1939, Dr. Bush assumed the presidency of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which supported intramural research, and awarded scientific research grants to researchers at other places. Subsequently, he led a series of federal scientific research entities.

Throughout much of the 19th century, federally sponsored scientific research had been centered at federal establishments such as the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the network of agricultural experiment stations, established by the 1887 Hatch Act, and charged with conducting research to improve American agriculture. Scientists at research universities, on the other hand, were involved in advanced scientific research funded primarily by private donors, philanthropic foundations, state legislatures, and student tuitions.

During the period between World War I and World War II, the science community expressed skepticism — even antagonism — toward the concept of federal funding. Their experience of conducting research within a university environment fostered their allegiance to academic freedom. They feared government funding might lead to government control, and the relinquishment of intellectual freedom. But singular events shift paradigms.

World War II, was a war of science and technology, in which military strategy and technology developed in tandem. With the war’s onset, Dr. Bush convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the United States needed an all-out mobilization for defense, based on collaborative scientific research among sectors of society.

Science was mobilized — under civilian control — to assist with strategy and to develop technological measures to improve Allied tactics and effectiveness. Scientists evaluated military problems, and developed devices and weapons to resolve those problems and to oppose enemy tactics.

The German V-1, or “buzz bomb,” powered by an Argus pulsejet, terrorized and devastated London. This first guided missile used a simple autopilot, a weighted pendulum to provide fore-and-aft attitude measurement to control pitch, damped and stabilized by a gyromagnetic compass. A countdown timer on the nose, driven by a vane anemometer, was set according to prevailing wind conditions to reach zero upon arrival at the target.

They were effective as area bombs, and the characteristic buzzing — which ceased moments before they struck and exploded — terrorized and psychologically demoralized the London populace.

Allied countermeasures included antiaircraft fire, But the V-1’s speed and altitude were more than the rate of traverse of the standard British QF 3.7 inch mobile gun. Other methods — bombing launch sites on the French coast, barrage balloons with cables to snag the missiles, and fighter interception — were only minimally effective.

The threat was reduced when more effective measures were developed. These were electronic aids for anti-aircraft guns developed here at the M.I.T. Radiation Laboratory — or Rad Lab — a division of the National Defense Research Committee under the leadership of M.I.T. President Karl T. Compton, and then-Dean of Engineering Vannevar Bush. These devices were based on the cavity magnetron, radar-based automatic gunlaying, and the proximity fuse. In addition, Bell Telephone Laboratories produced an anti-aircraft predictor fire-control system based on an analog computer.

The effectiveness of these alliances — forged quickly to secure advantage and to win the war — made a deep impression on each sector, and transformed the relationship between science and the federal government.

As the war was drawing to a close at the end of 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Dr. Bush to evaluate the lessons learned from the wartime mobilization of scientific expertise, and how they might be applied to peacetime pursuits.

Under the direction of Dr. Bush, four advisory panels of experts convened to discuss the nature of the collaborative relationships, advising Dr. Bush of their thinking. By July 1945, Dr. Bush had produced his strikingly prescient report — Science — the Endless Frontier — which he submitted to President Truman, Roosevelt having died that April.

Read in its entirety, the report is comprehensive. It sets forth a national intellectual road map, focused on science, but in balance with other national needs for high ability in the humanities, social sciences, and other studies essential to national well-being. It is a science policy model for knowledge creation and application, encompassing the elements required for innovation — a blueprint for a new era of science. Indeed, it is a system for national innovation, a paradigm for scientific growth which has demonstrated extraordinary vitality.

The fundamental principles of Dr. Bush’s report are simple. First, the results of scientific research could be adapted readily to shifting national needs, and could accelerate the pace of innovation, assisting not only in national security, but also in medical advance, economic growth, quality of life, and overall societal benefit. Second, the three principal research sectors — government, industry, and academia — could accomplish far more in partnership than in isolation. The fact that each sector brings differing needs and priorities to a project enhances, rather than hinders, the pace of innovation. The report, also, emphasizes the critical linking of support for basic research with the advanced education of aspiring scientists and engineers. In seeking to foster top-level scientific talent, the report suggests that broad support of opportunity for all is the most effective way to garner those of the highest abilities.

Science — the Endless Frontier set forth two important dicta:

  • One posits that basic science is performed without thought of practical use, to derive fundamental understanding.

  • A second offers that basic research discoveries will be converted via technology transfer to become powerful drivers of technological innovation.

The report was not a wholly new concept. Dr. Bush extended the pre-existing practice of federal investment in research to benefit agriculture to health and medicine, industry and innovation, and to national security. However, it set forth a new paradigm defining the relationship between basic science, technological innovation, and enterprise creation. The model became the engine which has driven American dominance in scientific discovery and technological innovation for decades — and still pertains, today.

The report’s release made front page headlines in The New York Times.

The results have been dramatic and enduring. In 1935, the federal government contributed only about 0.35 percent of national income for research and development. By 1962, the federal investment had risen to more than 3.3 percent of national income — an increase of approximately 10 order of magnitude.

Since the issuance of the Bush report, a science policy infrastructure has developed, more or less in line with Dr. Bush’s concepts.

Several differing, yet identifiable periods have characterized the decades since then, reflecting global events and U.S. interests and concerns. The first was the Cold War period immediately after World War II. This period was characterized by robust investment in defense, space and nuclear energy research, and concomitant vigorous support for students in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics in higher education and beyond.

A second period took place during the Great Society program under President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was characterized by a dip in basic research funding. Instead, spending was focused largely on social priorities and public-sector needs. Research support for social and behavioral science almost doubled.

A third period developed in the mid-1970s, when there was increased interest in national economic competitiveness. The nation was becoming aware that other nations — especially Japan — could compete seriously with U.S. global technological pre-eminence in engineering and manufacturing. After the 1973 world oil crisis, Japan invested heavily in conservation and reducing oil dependency, and at the same time enhanced its productivity. Advances in micro-circuitry and semiconductors led to new growth industries in consumer electronics and computers. The net result expanded knowledge-intensive and service industries. U.S. concern over global competitiveness, however, was short-lived, when Japanese economic growth slowed.

Today, the context for the Vannevar Bush paradigm has shifted somewhat. There is greater call for public accountability, less discretionary funding, and a narrower focus on short-term outcomes. Federal investment in scientific research has been shrinking, driven by concern over “big government,” limits on federal spending, concern for federal deficit growth, and confidence in market-driven private sector research. The American Association for the Advancement of Science estimates that, overall, federal science research spending has declined by half since 1970, as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Fifty years ago this week, we met the challenge of Sputnik by employing the elements of Dr. Bush’s paradigm, in much the same way we did to win World War II. With the break-up of the former Soviet Union, there no longer is a “Cold War” with an imminent thermonuclear standoff. The outcomes of wars fought since that time were determined not so much by opponents’ advanced technology, but by cultural and other factors, often beyond the scope of science and technology.

Today, fifty years after Sputnik, we sit with a need to focus on another great global challenge — energy security and sustainability. I believe it is the “Space Race” of this century. We are in a race against time as we were then. Success requires multiple sector collaboration, as it did then. But such collaborative endeavors require a base rooted in fundamental research — with no “product” in mind. But research always seeds new ideas, leading to yet unknown advances. Research is important in its own right.

This will require a rejuvenation on a massive scale, of university/government/industry mobilization — in basic research and education, which powered our efforts in World War II and beyond.

Such needed efforts may find strength in the American COMPETES Act, which was signed into law in August. The Act authorizes $33.6 billion for research and education programs across the federal government over the next four years. The legislation supports a comprehensive strategy to keep America innovative and competitive, placing new emphasis on science and mathematics education — from K-12 through higher education and advanced degrees — and on renewing a commitment to basic research — with a particular focus on energy.

For research, the Act authorizes nearly $17 billion to U.S. Department of Energy programs over the next four fiscal years. It is to establish an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy. Known as “ARPA-E,” the new agency is designed to be flexible and fast-acting, responding quickly to energy research challenges. It will focus on collaborative research and development initiatives that are not likely to be undertaken alone. ARPA-E is authorized at $300 million in fiscal years 2008, 2009, and 2010.

The Act authorizes $22 billion for the National Science Foundation over fiscal years 2008 to 2010. One section deals specifically with high-performance computing and networking to fund research in such areas as:

  • affordable broadband access, including wireless technologies;
  • networking protocols and architectures, including resilience to outages or attacks;
  • nanoelectronics for communications applications;
  • low-power communications electronics;
  • equitable access to national advanced fiber optic research and educational networks in noncontiguous States;

For strengthening science and mathematics education, the U.S. Department of Energy is authorized to promote programs that capitalize on the unique resources of the U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories — through internships for students, and through summer institutes and specialty high schools.

The NSF is authorized for strong increases for fiscal year 2008 for programs to prepare new science and mathmatics teachers, and to provide current teachers with content and pedagogical expertise. The Act authorizes increases for National Science Foundation programs which help to support college students in mathematics and science. Graduate fellowships will expand, as will early career grants, research traineeships, and seed grants for outstanding new investigators, with an emphasis on high-risk, high-reward research.

These few elements of the Act barely scratch the surface, but to the degree that appropriations meet authorization levels, it will begin to refresh the Vannevar Bush compact, rejuvenate its strength, and develop a new generation of scientists and engineers.

Today, Dr. Bush’s model of multi-sector collaboration is being realized not only at the Federal level, but in regional initiatives as well.

Last month, as one example, Rensselaer opened the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations (or CCNI) — a 100 million dollar partnership between Rensselaer, IBM, and New York State.

The collaborating partnership makes possible a supercomputer which ranks seventh in the world and the most powerful of any based exclusively at a university. At the heart is an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer that operates at more than 80 teraflops. All components associated with the CCNI will generate more than 100 TeraFLOPS of heterogeneous computational power, and 832 TeraBytes of storage. This supercomputing powerhouse has the muscle and speed to enable researchers, from industry and academia, to conduct a wide range of computational studies across multiple disciplines.

With its sheer computational power and with the ability to handle and manipulate massive amounts of data in multiple modes — text, numeric, video, and audio, the CCNI will support cyber-enabled, computationally-driven discovery and innovation across a broad front, including computational biology and chemistry, theoretical physics, engineering design, climate change modeling, and more.

In addition to its inherent computational power and its implications for research across a broad disciplinary front in the basic sciences, our intent is to link the CCNI with another unique platform, the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC). Because of its physical spaces and its technology, EMPAC is not only a technology-enabled creative time-based arts platform, it is a research platform — for research in animation, visualization, simulation, acoustics, free space optics, and more.

As an umbrella for drawing the arts, sciences, and engineering together, it will allow unique performances, when married with the computational power of CCNI.

For example, it is our intent to assemble the world’s best orchestra — or at a more modest level first, the world’s best string quartet to play in one of our studios in EMPAC. Except they all will not be in the room. To create the real-time, real presence three-dimensional experience, with an audience in the room, of dispersed musicians playing simultaneously together, is its own research problem. The other media and the physical spaces will allow us to probe the interface between the virtual and physical worlds, with implications for studies in perception, cognition and learning, as we imbue virtually projected distributed entities with a kind of effective intelligence for autonomous interactivity between real and virtual objects.

Why did I spend the time to talk about Dr. Vannever Bush at this symposium celebrating the new Green Center for Physics? Dr. Bush’s understanding that fundamental research, powered by multidisciplinary collaboration to do great things, is being played out here today, at the Green Center, as you draw multiple sub-disciplines of physics together in one place. It is still the paradigm for tomorrow’s flowering of basic science — in this case, physics.

I also chose to do so because Cecil Green, like Dr. Bush, was a visionary. The success of the company that he founded — based on instrumentation for oil prospect and drilling — required, in an industrial framework, the same multi-sector, multidisciplinary approach we talk so much about today.

I came here to talk about physics and my physics experience at M.I.T. It was unique and allowed me, even at that early stage, to do basic research as an undergraduate. But even then, I was a contrarian who reached into other fields — in my case, materials science and engineering — to combine the thinking in these areas with physics to do my bachelor’s thesis. I concentrated in particle theory for my Ph.D., but I switched later to condensed matter theory.

My physics experience at M.I.T. has enabled me to do basic research in elementary particle theory at Fermilab and CERN; and condensed matter theory at Bell Labs — studying the electronic and optical properties of 2-D systems; science-based regulation, and national and global safety policy development as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and now, leadership of a technological research university, not unlike M.I.T. — albeit smaller.

I must confess to feeling a little as though I have shadowed Dr. Bush in my life. We share the M.I.T. experience, but my career path through senior leadership positions — in government, industry, research, and academia — parallels the essential elements of his life. Dr. Bush became a Life Member of the M.I.T. Corporation, as am I, and a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, as I am, also. And, last May, it was my great privilege to receive the Vannevar Bush Award from the National Science Board.I did not know where my career would lead, as I left M.I.T., at an uncertain time; armed with my bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees in physics. My life and career have unfolded in ways I could not have predicted. It has been an exciting ride to this point. That is the beauty of an M.I.T. physics education — which reflects the beauty of physics itself.

I am honored and delighted to be here.

Thank you for inviting me.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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